Hard times for leaders

«There’s a world out there that I have touched but about which I want to know more.» With those words, David Miliband withdrew from the front line of politics in Britain, announcing that he would not be part of his younger brother Ed’s shadow Cabinet. David, the former foreign secretary who was considered the favorite to win the leadership of the Labour Party, lost to his brother by just 1.6 percent of the vote. David is 45, Ed is 40. One brother’s defeat of another is as old as life itself. The Bible, myths, literature, the animal kingdom and history are an endless cycle of fratricide. In the Milibands’ case, the primeval clash is yoked to modern politics – which is determined by votes and not the sword. Not long ago, the victorious brother would kill or maim the loser (if the latter did not manage to flee and organize his vengeful return). David Miliband may have been hurt and humbled, but he is still alive and he can take the second road: He says he wants to learn more about the world and leave Ed to lead the party without his elder brother breathing down his neck. David Miliband’s statement is a rare and frank admission: Despite his studies, despite entering politics at a young age and despite having held the most important post of foreign secretary, the man who came within a breath of leading the Labour Party, and possibly becoming prime minister, feels that he has simply touched life and now wants to learn more. What can his younger brother say now that he will have to focus entirely on politics? What will he know of life if and when he becomes prime minister? In older times, things were simpler: The most capable warrior would become leader of the tribe or nation, and if he had a son and grandson capable of maintaining power, a dynasty was born – until the day when a weak successor would be dethroned by a more capable usurper. With the development of bureaucracies and hierarchies (military and religious), even physically weak leaders could hold on to power through intrigue and not through martial prowess. (The case of the North Korean leader and his 27-year-old successor Kim Jong-Un is a strange throwback to another time, when young, inexperienced sons were anointed general overnight in order to «gain» the credibility of a warrior.) Most leaders in today’s democracies are products of the hothouse of politics and the news media, where their image counts more than the essence of their ideas and their abilities. This is not a new thing (fame has always helped people attain power, just as power begets fame) but today the immediacy of images and the endless presence of certain people play a major role in building up candidates in the eyes of voters. Very often, it is only after candidates are elected to high office that the people can ascertain whether they are capable or not. By then, though, it may be too late. In Greece, how many heirs (of royal stock, family dynasties and politics) were proved to be lesser leaders than their predecessors only after their election? The heirs of dynasties – and other notables – usually grow up knowing that one day they will govern; they do not need to prove themselves in the real world, in war, in the marketplace. This deficit is very clear today, when most of our politicians are incapable of understanding the (mal)functioning of the real economy and society. And yet, history is full of leaders who appeared insignificant but managed to gain in importance because in difficult times they shouldered the burden and led their people out of the desert. Our time calls for leaders who will not only deal with today’s problems but will also prepare us for the future. Let us hope that those who do not know the ways of the world, who have not gained the right experience, will at least show themselves to be brave.

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